Can New York Save Itself from Out-of-Control Rents?

We talked to a deputy mayor, a professor, and a community activist about the housing crisis eating America's largest city.

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Nov 8 2015, 2:00pm

New York City has a problem that isn't unprecedented or unique, but it's undeniably a problem: Too many people want to live here. As a result, the vacancy rate has dropped to 1 percent in Manhattan, and the average price of a rental in that borough is higher than it's ever been. Brooklyn is now the least affordable housing market (relative to income) in the entire country, and rents have risen in Staten Island, the Bronx, and Queens as well. Luxury condos have transformed neighborhoods like Williamsburg into glassy wastelands, and chain stores are taking over as independent bodegas are driven out.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected partially on the promise that he'd reverse the Bloomberg-era trend of of anything-goes development. A proposal from the mayor calls for the construction of 80,000 units of affordable housing and the preservation of another 120,000 units. Many of those units would come as a result a policy called "mandatory inclusionary zoning," which forces developers of large apartment complexes to set aside up to 30 percent of their units for lower-income residents.

Questions remain about whether this plan will work, or if it'll work well enough to counteract the waves of gentrification washing over New York neighborhoods. Activists say allowing developers to build in previously poor areas like East New York and the South Bronx, even if many of the units are affordable, will encourage even more gentrification. And some experts wonder whether de Blasio's inclusionary zoning mandate will be sufficient to address the housing needs of all New Yorkers.

Related: Why New Yorkers Love New York

Nearly every city in the country that's grappling with gentrification and rising prices will have to face these same issues; if New York can successfully navigate them, other municipalities will surely follow the de Blasio model.

To learn more about the city's housing crisis and the proposed solutions, I spoke to three experts with different perspectives on the issue: Alicia Glen, New York Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development; Matthew Lasner, associate professor in the Department of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College; and Shatia Strother, the lead organizer at FUREE (Families United for Racial and Economic Equality), a Brooklyn-based activist group fighting gentrification.

Public housing in Brooklyn. Image via Flickr user Mike Steele

Alicia Glen, New York Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development

VICE: Is the city in a housing crisis?
Alicia Glen: Yeah. I'm not usually prone to one-word answers, but yeah. We're in a full-blown housing crisis. It's not like this city hasn't had housing crises before, but I think it's different [today]. I often talk about the housing crisis when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s, which was a crisis of disinvestment and shrinking neighborhoods, and the discussion around whether or not we should do massive urban renewal and clearing out. The issue there was less about affordability and more about the housing stock and neighborhoods.

We sort of have the opposite problem now, which is that NYC simply does not have enough housing and there's a growing disconnect between rents and incomes. So that's like a double whammy, right?

You have all of these people like you and my kids who can't live in the neighborhoods they grew up in. Is that so terrible? I'm not so sure that it is. My grandparents didn't live in the neighborhood they grew up in either. Change isn't per se bad. The biggest issue is not that you guys can't live in the Village anymore, it's that you may not be able to live anywhere. So that, to me, is a big differentiating factor.

But isn't there a kind of domino effect? If I can't afford to live where I grew up and move somewhere else, won't I make that area unaffordable for someone else?
Is that a bad thing, though? It used to be quite the opposite, right? It used to be people didn't want to live in the city center. If you build amazing neighborhoods with transit and good schools and connectivity why would you want to live in the cacophony of downtown Manhattan? My answer is it's very complicated and that neighborhoods change. And I think it's already a value statement to assume that it's bad if people move into other neighborhoods that are further away because that just runs afoul of the history of the world.

Sure, but have you heard anyone say, "Thank God, all these people are coming in and kicking us out of our apartments?"
Well, I've never heard of anybody that's been kicked out of their apartments saying, "Thank God," but I've certainly heard people saying, "Thank God my neighborhood isn't the shitty crap-hole it was 25 years ago, when I couldn't walk down the street and I couldn't buy a quart of milk." I think we need to differentiate between people who are being displaced because of bad behavior versus the fact that neighborhoods change. It's complicated, but a lot of neighborhoods have changed for the better.

People being illegally evicted from their buildings is against the law and we will not tolerate it, but that is different than neighborhoods that were historically filled with just New York City Housing Authority housing and other very, very low-income housing. We're saying as a policy matter we'd like to see a healthier mix of uses and incomes in these neighborhoods.

But I think people get mad when all this change happens and they don't seem to have control over it. Things are rezoned, their neighborhoods change, some of them can't afford to stay.
The reason why so many people are pissed is that they have been conditioned to the fear of change. I don't like it when my dry cleaner changes ownership. It pisses me off because I've known those people for years. It stresses me out. I don't like change. But change is inevitable and so how you shape the future is incredibly important as opposed to letting it wash over you. Because it's coming.

One of the things that fundamentally differentiates [de Blasio's policies from earlier rules] that is you have to build affordable housing or else you can't build a building. No other city in the country has ever done what we are doing. So when some developer comes in to, say, Prospect Lefferts Gardens or wherever and says, "I want to build a 25-foot tower and I might need a zoning change in order to get it," they can't build that building then unless they build affordable housing. It's a fundamentally different contract with the community. The other option is to let the market go roll right over you.

Growth is happening anyway. We've spent two years of our blood, sweat, and tears trying to figure out how we marry a really smart mandatory inclusionary housing policy with our capital budget so that we're doing the kind of infrastructure improvements that we need in the neighborhoods that are experiencing growth. Why are we fighting tooth and nail for transit improvements in New York City that connect neighborhoods? Why are we insisting that Citi Bike is put in neighborhoods where there's no demonstrable market demand for it? Because we want the city to be inclusive and grow at the same time. We have to bring those equity principles and overlay them.

"Do I wish we had more money to invest in housing? Of course. But we also need money to invest in our schools and our roads and our parks."

OK, but even with all this stuff, gentrification is still happening, people are still being pushed out.
We have certain tools in our municipal tool box. We can't change the entire history of capitalism and we're not Trotsky. You try to redistribute some of that growth to the people that need it. We could have also just said, You know what? Let's just let the housing market run rampant like it has been for the past ten years and sort of throw up our hands. We did quite the opposite. We could have said, "Let's not take another stab at fixing the New York City Housing Authority." That's not like a sexy, fun thing to do with your day, trust me. And instead we threw ourselves into it. I mean, no one in their right mind would do that.

We can't control everything, but the differences we make actually really matter. It's not just in the margins. Tens of thousands of families who actually will be in better shape because of the battles the mayor's chosen to wage.

Do you think what you have in your toolkit is enough?
There's never enough. Do I wish we had more money to invest in housing? Of course. But we also need money to invest in our schools and our roads and our parks. Do I wish that the federal government would issue an incremental Section 8 voucher so that people coming out of the shelters can afford housing? Of course I do. Do I wish that the federal government had a more thoughtful approach to the mortgage interest tax deduction so that we could reallocate money into housing for renters and not just subsidize owners? Of course I do. We don't have all the tools.

Matthew Lasner, Associate Professor in the Department of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College

What do you think of de Blasio's housing plan?
Matthew Lasner: Certainly it's more ambitious than earlier plans. It's certainly not the most ambitious ten-year proposal for housing in the region ever. It doesn't envision more housing, say, than was built in the 1950s under Mayor [Fiorello] LaGuardia, and especially Mayor [Robert] Wagner, when we saw hundreds of thousands of units between the federal public housing program and the New York City Housing Authority. We saw a tremendous outpouring of subsidized housing production in that area. The historian in me cocks an eyebrow about these things, about de Blasio saying how large his plan is.

The other piece that disappointed me a little—and I understand why the administration didn't tackle this in the plan—is that affordable housing requires more subsidies. The subsidies can come from the city, to a degree, but the city has never been able to pay for these kinds of programs on its own, and there's no reason why the city should pay. New York City gives millions—billions—of dollars to Albany and Washington to support highway construction in Georgia and Kansas, and some of that money should be coming back in the form of cash grants or zero-interest, long-life mortgages for below-market housing. And it's not.

In that sense, the plan that de Blasio produced was really coloring within lines. It didn't really set up a political agenda for trying to do what previous generations of leadership work successfully did, which was go to Albany and go to Washington and say that conditions in a big, dense city like New York requires subsidies, ones the city itself can't provide.

Well that gets to a larger issue though: We fight gentrification as if it's a local issue, but really a lot of this is out of our control. There's no money from the feds, there's no regulation from Albany.
I don't want to say that a mayor, that even the mayor of New York City, doesn't have any control over the situation, but I would agree that this is a much larger issue. If the mayor of New York City cannot solve a housing crisis—which is really just a product of laissez faire capitalism—then it doesn't bode well.

That said, again, you go back to the 1910s, the 1920s, the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and it was housing activists and politicians by and large from New York City who made the argument for a federal housing program, for a state housing program. From that perspective, I would say that the potential for change does rest on the shoulders of local actors. It's a much larger issue the mayor can't solve on his own, but the problem can't be solved without the mayor taking a very strong role in making a case for a national and state support for affordable housing in New York City.

"The market-based solution has done a good job to a degree, but it's never going to solve the problem."

What do you think about this kind of market-based solution to housing—allowing lots of private development as long as it includes some affordable housing?
That's kind of the solution that we've come up with since the 1970s, since the start of the demise of public housing. The market-based solution has done a good job to a degree, but it's never going to solve the problem. There's only one way to solve the problem, just as there's only one way to solve the problem of income inequality. It's through redistribution of wealth at the federal level. And the mayor can't redistribute wealth in that way. So, again, the mayor can sort of set the dialogue and serve as an advocate. To me, that's perhaps the single most important thing that a New York City mayor can do.

Image via Flickr user Dan DeLuca

Shatia Strother, Lead Organizer at Families United for Racial and Economic Equality

Why do you feel like it's your responsibility to fight gentrification?
Shatia Strother: On a personal level, I've been able to visually see my neighborhood change and also emotionally see my neighborhood change. Bed Stuy has always been a very tight-knit community, has always been predominantly populated by people of color from various backgrounds. We have a rich culture, a rich history here of arts, activism, community engagement. More recently I've noticed that it's under attack.

A lot of the new residents who move here don't have roots here, don't have a true connection to the neighborhood, and are not interested in integrating themselves in the culture. I've seen instances where folks come here and create their own atmosphere without any regard to what already exists, and it's a complete disrespect to the neighborhood that I know and love. So that's a personal thing. Also, I've watched the rents increase here to such a degree that many people who've been here for so many years and so many generations like myself are finding it harder and harder to afford to stay. My family has been fortunate enough to be able to continue to live here, but I don't know what the future holds, so we're living in this constant state of uncertainty.

What did you think when de Blasio was first elected? Did he represent hope after the Bloomberg era?
Like a lot of other people, my optimistic side tried to think, "OK, let's see how this goes." He ran on a platform of eliminating the whole "Tale of Two Cities" idea; he touted himself as someone who was interested in truly bridging the gap [between rich and poor] and truly changing the city so that it not only accommodated wealthy and affluent residents, but was inclusive and supportive of low-income and moderate-income communities. They always say hindsight is 20/20. Since then, it has been my observation that de Blasio's plans and strategies are less about meaningful change and are starting to, in a lot of ways, mimic Bloomberg's plan.

He has changed the ratio in a lot of development with inclusionary zoning to be instead of 80/20 to be 70/30, so that's a diversion from Bloomberg's plan. But otherwise, I think it's just another version of this general American idea of the trickle-down effect. I think in order for any kind of real meaningful change and shift, we need to get out of the idea that supporting and encouraging the rich will somehow trickle down to the rest of us.

"I think that in order to change the political and economic and social climate of not only our city but our nation, we really have to change the entire the capitalist system, but we're not there yet."

Alicia Glen talked a lot about how the growth of the city is kind of inevitable, so we need to figure out how to deal with the consequences, such as higher housing prices. How do you feel about that?
Economic growth is a wonderful idea if that economic growth is targeted to low-income and moderate-income communities because, of course, no one wants to stay poor. But gentrification doesn't have to be inevitable. As it currently stands, it is because of the policies that are in place, in terms of the way real estate developers control politicians and that government and have a big say in how policies go down. But that doesn't have to be the case.

I think we oftentimes become very complacent and comfortable with the status quo, which makes it very hard for us to think outside of the box and to think of solutions that don't just perpetuate existing realities. Poverty is a socially constructed creation, and we need to address the underlying causes of poverty in these communities. Affordable housing is great, and it's absolutely necessary, but it's not enough. I don't think that addressing poverty should include opening the doors for white affluent residents to move into communities of black and brown folks, and then praying and crossing our fingers for some trickle-down effect that'll never come.

We should be investing in quality schools for communities because as we know education is a major component in the economic makeup of neighborhoods. We should support small businesses and encourage ones that are owned by community members and employ other community members. We should be offering and making sure that there are measures for homeowner stability and support in low-income communities. And community boards, while they have some control over things, definitely don't have as much control and power as they could in things like land-use review or rezoning processes. That could be something that definitely addresses concentrated poverty.

Right, but those are all issues that can't necessarily be addressed by just a mayor. It would basically mean living in a socialist country.
I definitely don't think that all of that burden and all of that responsibility or power should lie with just the mayor. I think that's a systemic issue. One mayor cannot enact all of that change. I think that oftentimes socialism has a negative connotation. Somehow socialism has been translated mostly into this idea that society should just support lazy people who sit on their butts and collect benefits, but that's not true at all. When we talk about a socialist society, what we're saying is that we should uphold, uplift, and prioritize people over greed, over money, over this idea that we need to step on each other in order to achieve success.

In terms of from an organizing perspective, I think that our role is helping to facilitate a change in that dynamic of powerlessness and figuring out strategies and ways that communities can reclaim power, agency, and determination for their own communities because oftentimes we negate the existing knowledge in communities. Community members are the experts in how their communities should be run, but they're not giving that room and that opportunity.

East New York is a perfect example of how this is playing out. The government is not paying attention to what the community is saying, and there are loopholes in the inclusionary zoning law. We're really at a critical point where we either have to make a very radical shift in the way things go, because if not, if the city is allowed to bulldoze through East New York and it's going to set the stage for the rest of the city and other neighborhoods who are in similar circumstances.

Do you think New York can be saved from gentrification?
I think that New York could be saved, but there's a caveat. I think in order for that saving to happen, there needs to be some significant and deep searching and deep introspection into how we go about doing things. I think that in order to change the political and economic and social climate of not only our city but our nation, we really have to change the entire the capitalist system, but we're not there yet.

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